In the Footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi:
India's Curse of Untouchability

by Linda de Hoyos

Printed in the American Almanac, September, 1988


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The street scene in the pictures shown here is in the city of Patna, the capital city of the state of Bihar, in September 1988. As the capital city of the Maurya empire of 300 B.C., of the Gupta Renaissance Empire of 500 A.D., and as the greatest city of the region which gave rise to Gautuma Lord Buddha, Patna has one of the proudest heritages of any city in India.

But today, nothing save the isolated ruins of the past would give the traveler a clue as to the greatness that was once generated from within Patna. The streets of today's city of 7 million are monotonous repetitions of the scene shown here--crumbling and unpainted buildings lining rubbled sidewalks and road, where every possible means of conveyance, living and not-living, is used to move people and loads to their destination.

The pictures were taken between 6 and 7 a.m. In the first, two women can be seen toward the right hand of the picture, carrying a short-broom in hand. They are streetcleaners, making their way down the street, pushing bits of dirt into tiny piles. Their swept pile accounts for approximately one-twentieth to one-tenth of the dirt and debris in the area. About an hour later, the man in the second picture (at right) traveled by, with shovel and cart. Two others--stronger and younger--who were with him, had bounded off to talk to friends or look into other business, leaving their feebler friend to slowly and painfully pick up the tiny dirt-piles left by the women.

Such is early morning streetcleaning in Patna. The entire scene bespeaks of the problem India faces today. The productivity of these human beings is abysmally low. The total ineffectiveness with which they carry out their assigned job is clearly of no concern to themselves or to anyone else.

These people, like millions of others of India's poor, are by profession and birth members of the untouchable caste--now called the "scheduled caste'' after the designation given by the British (since there are many sub-divisions in the lower caste), or harijans--``children of God''--as they were called by Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1947, untouchability was banned by the Indian constitution established after independence from the British. Yet, as a social organization and economic constraint, untouchability is very much alive today. Its grip and that of the caste system, from which it derives, will necessarily be challenged to the very core if India is to become an industrialized nation. This question has now become urgent for India's 800 million people. As the 21st century nears, either India will find within itself the capacity for cultural regeneration permitting economic development, or as Mahatma Gandhi predicted, Hinduism will perish, and India with it.


What Is Untouchability?

The harijans represent in India that section of society which is not only held in the lowest esteem, but which is looked upon by the other castes as "unclean.'' For this reason, the harijans--who are found to be the sweepers, cleaners, nightsoil collectors, and leather tanners--are considered as unfit for human society or co-mingling. Harijans are not permitted to take their water from the public wells.

Hindu culture is divided into four castes. Each Hindu individual is proscribed to be a member of one caste by birth, usually connoted by the profession of his or her parent. There are the brahmins, the highest or scholarly class--75 percent of the Indian civil service bureaucracy is brahmin; kshatriya, the caste of the ancient kings and warriors; the vaisya, the farmers and peasants; and the sudras, the laborers. The harijans come under the sudras, who also are treated with disdain, but not as outcasts.

Today, within each of these castes are many subdivisions, each forming a social organization whose function is to protect caste members.

Intermarriage between castes and eating with a member of another caste is strictly forbidden even today by Hindu caste society. Caste is designated by the Hindu last name.

Approximately 20 percent of all Hindu Indians are harijans, with another 20 percent members of the lower castes. This generally overlaps the 40 percent of the population that is below the poverty line, but there are many upper-caste Hindus, including many brahmins, who are destitute. For the upper-caste Hindus, poverty may even be more cruel, since their caste status denies them various "poverty relief'' programs administered by the government for the lower castes.

But for the harijans, bitter social stigmas accompany poverty. First and foremost, the harijans are forbidden to enter the Hindu temples--by virtue of their presumed "uncleanness.''

When the agitation against untouchability began in the 1920s, harijans were not only barred from the temples, but also from the roads leading to the temple. In the princely state of Travancore, 40 percent of the population was branded as untouchables. And among them, there were degrees of social stigma. Even a harijan considered himself defiled, for example, if a member of the Ullain community came within the distance of 40 hands. And all untouchables considered it a sin to look at a Pardavannan, those who washed harijans' clothes. This last category had to stay in their huts all day, for fear that their appearance might defile others. The more educated harijans in the state found that education and material advancement made no dent in the barriers posed against them.

Although bringing the harijans into the temples was the thrust of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign against untouchability in the 1930s, Hinduism has since reverted back to its old ways. On Oct. 28, India's President Venkataraman declared, as part of the Congress Party gear-up for the 1989 national elections, that he would lead a group of harijans into the Nathdwara Temple in Rajasthan.


The Dark Age

Orthodox Hindus will turn to the Sanskrit scriptures of the Vedic period--4,000 B.C.-500 A.D.--to justify the social and economic stratification of caste. But the evidence of those scriptures shows that the culture which produced the Rig Veda, humanity's oldest book, was devoid of caste. Both women and men of the lowest classes were mentioned as composers of some of the hymns of the Rig Veda.

Nor had individuals been locked into their trade by birth. Members of the same family took to different crafts and trades, as seen in a hymn of the Rig Veda (IX, 112), which says: "A bard I am, my father a leech,/ And my mother is a grinder of corn,/ Diverse in means, but all wishing wealth,/ Equally we strive for cattle.''

Sanskrit, the language of the Vedic scriptures, is the source of all Indo-European languages. Although Sanskrit is not spoken today, it remains humanity's most highly elaborated language with the largest vocabulary. Who were the creators of this language?

Their culture stands in diametrical opposition to the Mesopotamian-based culture, of which the Harappan culture of the Mohenjodaro archaeological sites in Pakistan, was an extension. The Mesopotamian culture, glorified by British imperialists as the source of all civilization, was in fact a degenerate culture, dominated by a priestly class (the Magi), who ruled over the population with the aid of the Shakti-Shiva mother cult.

In contrast to the astrological tendencies of all such oligarchically based cultures as the Harappan-Mesopotamia, the Vedic culture incorporated a scientific outlook toward the universe. The Aryans had developed a solar calendar, as opposed to a lunar calendar which is associated with astrologically based society and with the Shiva cult.

The Sanskrit language, as the 200 B.C. grammarian Panini analyzed it, was pivoted on the verb--the action--as the root-source of all thought, as opposed to emphasis on the noun.

The Harappan culture, in which scientific knowledge was subsumed under priestly "secret'' or "magic'' knowledge, was enthralled by the image of the sadistic mother-goddess, whose capricious will, as interpreted by the magi and the astrologers, must be propitiated. The Sanskrit scriptures sing hymns of praise to the Creator, either implicitly, or explicitly as this hymn from the Rig Veda (X), translated by Max Mueller, shows:

Creation Hymn

Nor Aught nor Nought existed; yon bright sky/ Wast not, nor heaven's broad woof outstretched above./ What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?/ Was it the water's fathomless abyss?/ There was not death--yet was there nought immortal,/ There was no confine betwixt day and night;/ The only One breathed breathless by itself,/ Other than It there nothing since has been./ Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled/ In gloom profound--an ocean without light/ The germ that still lay covered in the husk/ Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat./ Then first came love upon it, the new spring/ Of mind--yea, poets in their hearts discerned,/ Pondering, this bond between created things/ and uncreated. Comes this spark from earth/ Piercing and all-pervading, or from heaven?/ Then seeds were sown, and mighty powers arose--/ Nature below, and power and will above--/ Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here,/ Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang? The Gods themselves came later into being--/ Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?/ He from whom all this great creation came, Whether His will created or was mute,/ The most High Seer that is in highest heaven,/He knows it--or perchance even He knows not.

The early Vedic culture, which produced the scriptures so revered in Hindu culture today, was one in which poetry and reasoned apprehension of physical cause and effect flourished.

The caste system was not the creation of that culture but a product of its degeneration. The caste system emerged as a byproduct of a process, more than a millennia long, in which the Vedic culture was turned into its opposite: a hierarchically ordered state-imperial system dominated by a priestly class raised above the others by its claim to "secret knowledge.''

It would appear that the degeneration of the Sanskrit language as the primary spoken language went hand in hand with the rise of the caste system, over a long period that began before 1,000 B.C. The Vedic scriptures were sealed off and codified. The common people could no longer read them, and a special class emerged of those who could still read Sanskrit and therefore recite and interpret the body of scriptures. The freedom of all individuals to worship God with songs of praise was replaced by the "ritualization'' of the society under brahmin control.

It is believed that in 1,000 B.C., a great war was fought among the Aryan tribes, which war is chronicled later in the great epic, Mahabharata. As Indian historian R.C. Majumdar reports: "This war must have caused a tremendous sensation, comparable to the late great wars in Europe, for the ancient writers are unanimous in their view that it ushered in a new epoch--the Kali Yuga--or Dark Age, in the history of India.''

It is in this period leading toward the first century A.D. that the caste system became fixed in stone as the primary form of organization of Hindu society.

As the brahmins were raised in stature, and their knowledge passed down through family generations, so the lot of the lower castes worsened. In the period of 500 B.C., the caste of the sudras--or the lowest castes, composed of a mixture of poorer Aryans and aboriginal peoples in India--came to be formed as a distinctive caste. The sudras were denied the rights of participation in religious activities. It was claimed that the sudras had no right to approach the sacred fire, that is, to perform sacrifices, or to read the sacred texts.

Gradually, the caste system began to pervade all aspects of society. In each of the four castes, brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya, and sudra, a multiplicity of castes was created within them. For the lower castes, life became increasingly difficult. Marriage to sudras was seen as degrading. And some lower castes, the chandalas, for example, were treated as outcasts; they lived outside the city, and not only the touch, but even the sight of them was considered impure.

The caste system also started to dominate the legal system. The rate of interest was graded according to the caste of the debtor, with the sudras of course paying the highest interest rates. Fines and other penalties were also higher for sudras. And for crimes for which upper caste Hindus received light penalties, the sudras were given capital punishment.

As described by Majumdar: "The caste system was thus creeping like a shadow on the fair face of India, and the shadow was gradually lengthened with the declining day. It was a speck of black cloud that cast its shade on the brilliant culture and civilization of the Aryans. The cloud was as yet no bigger than a man's hand, but it was destined ere long to assume threatening proportions, and envelop the atmosphere in an impenetrable gloom, ushering in the dark night long before it was due.''

The creation of the Buddhist religion in the 5th century B.C. by Gautama, a member of the kshatriya (warrior) class, was in part a response to the increasing stratification of Hindu society. Members enjoyed equal rights in his church, irrespective of class or caste. Buddha also insisted that religious discourses be carried on in the language of the common people, which at that time was a degenerated form of Sanskrit, called Pali. But Buddhism could not be sustained in India; although Indian traders and colonizers carried Buddhism throughout Asia, in India, Buddhism became increasingly Brahminized, until it was fully absorbed back into Hindu culture.

Islam, which came into India with the invading Central Asians who began moving eastward into India in the 12th century, also held an appeal to lower-caste Hindus, since it eradicated caste distinctions, and the caste designation was thrown off with the acquisition of a Muslim name.

The next challenge to the caste system would wait many centuries, until the 1930s and Mahatma Gandhi.


Root and Branch

Mahatma Gandhi launched the war against untouchability with the "epic fast'' of Sept. 20-26, 1932. Gandhi had been arrested by the British and at the time was in the Yervada jail near Poona. Gandhi had warned as early as Sept. 13 that he would undertake the fast in protest of the "Communal Award'' of the British government. Under this divide-and-conquer tactic, the British were to establish a separate electorate for the untouchables, and the British had succeeded in winning over lower caste leaders to the idea.

"We do not want on our register and on our census untouchables classified as a separate class,'' declared Gandhi in his statement of protest. "I would far rather that Hinduism died than that untouchability lived. I will not bargain away the rights of the Harijans for the kingdom of the whole world. I cannot possibly tolerate what is in store for Hinduism if there are two divisions set up in every village.''

Despite Gandhi's threats, the British executed the Communal Award, in the name of "democracy.'' For his part, Gandhi agreed to reserving a percentage of seats for the harijans, but would not countenance separate electorates.

"I have endeavored to qualify myself to represent not the upper ten even among the untouchables but represent, as far as possible, the lowest strata of untouchables, whom I always have before my mind's eye wherever I go; for they have indeed drunk deep of the poison cup,'' Gandhi told reporters on the first day of the fast. He warned leaders of the harijans and of the Congress Party, then meeting in Bombay, that he would not be satisfied with a mere formal pact. "What I want, what I am living for and what I should delight in dying for, is the eradication of untouchability root and branch.... My life I count of no consequences.... My fast I want to throw in the scales of justice and if it wakes up caste-Hindus from their slumber, it will have served its purpose.''

Through a series of compromises frantically worked out by the Congress Party and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, founder of the Depressed Classes Welfare League, Gandhi ended his fast on Sept. 26. But the significance of the fast was that it unleashed a spirit within the Hindu population against untouchability. The eradication of untouchability was thereby incorporated as a fundamental principle of the Congress Party fight for independence. Across India, in towns, cities, and villages, actions by all Hindus began the opening of the doors of the Hindu temples to the harijans.

Then, on Nov. 7, 1933, Gandhi began the "harijan tour.'' Over the course of the next nine months, Gandhi and his wife Kasturbai traveled 12,504 miles, beginning from his headquarters in Wardha, and ending at the holiest of Hindu cities, Varanasi, on the Ganges River. The purpose of the tour was to awaken the Hindu spirit for the eradication of untouchability, to lead the harijans into the temples wherever possible, and to raise funds for the harijan cause, each day addressing thousands of people.

Gandhi stated that, as with his fasts, he was embarked on a religious mission. However, the harijan cause was for him the lever to uplift all Hindu society and an ecumenical mission for India's political unity--the requirement for victory over the British. Addressing a meeting of 30,000 people in Nagpur, Nov. 8, Gandhi said:

"The very act of the Hindu heart getting rid of distinctions of high and low must cure us of mutual jealousies and distrust of and among other communities. It is for this reason that I have staked my life on this issue. In fighting this battle against untouchability, I am fighting for unity not only among Hindu untouchables, but also among Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and all other different religious communities.''

On the tour, Gandhi, a merciless fundraiser, raised thousands of dollars for the harijan cause.
"I am used to reading the mass mind by taking at a sweep the expression in their eyes and their general demeanor. I could detect no trace of disapproval of what I have been doing in connection with untouchability. The manner in which the people came forward with their contributions was also significant.''

At his rallies, Gandhi collected jewelry from women; one-penny pieces from children; and profits from the businessmen.
"In this country of semi-starvation of millions and inefficient nutrition,'' Gandhi said, "the wearing of jewelry is an offense to the eye.... Indeed, women have blessed me for inducing them to part with things which had enslaved them.''

Even when he went to the state of Bihar, which had just been stricken by earthquake, Gandhi asked for funds for his work. "No one is so poor as not to afford a piece,'' he said, and indeed they came forward with their coins.

The real untouchables among mankind, he told the crowds that came to hear him, "are the evil passions. The special untouchable,'' he said, "is opium,'' which he called upon all to fight. If not stopped, opium, he said, would make the population extinct.

Gandhi did meet with opposition, however: gangs of orthodox Hindus organized under the banner of the black flag. Their headquarters was Varanasi, the cult-organized city which is paeaned by the satanists of the Harvard Divinity School today. The gangs followed him on the tour and at one point tried to block it. "Is a Brahmin only to be known by the flag he carried?'' Gandhi asked. "No, the Shastras say that only he is a Brahmin who is in commununion with the Infinite and knows humility, piety, sacrifice, and compassion.''

In Orissa, where the threats of the black flag gangs became acute, Gandhi challenged them by completing his journey on foot. "I know that those who are resorting to the violent methods can be counted on one's finger-ends,'' he explained. "I would have to demonstrate to them in every way that the movement is essentially religious in conception and execution.''

In his speech at Karaikal, Gandhi told the crowds that untouchability was completely inimical to the message of the Rig Veda. Its Mantras, he said, gave the lesson that there was one God and that He was supreme. All beings were born out of the Supreme Spirit. Untouchability as practiced, is contrary to this Divine Truth.

If untouchability is not eradicated, "the darkness that is untouchability would envelop the edifice of Hinduism,'' Gandhi warned.

The visitor to India is struck by the truth of those words. Although the caste system would likely crumble on its own under the impact of full industrialization, the "dark age'' of untouchability in India today threatens to prohibit that industrialization from ever taking place.

Gandhi's work must be taken up anew.


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac


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